Turbulent times for flight attendants. Efficient professionals, known for staying cool, now face a changed world

IF it's Tuesday, this must be Newark-Indianapolis-Evansville-Chicago-Indianapolis-Newark-Rochester-Buffalo. Linda Wozniak and two other USAir flight attendants, Patty Halvorsen and Sandi Cooper, are all scrunched together in the tiny galley of Flight 516, preparing to start the beverage and snack service. Mrs. Halvorsen is ripping open a case of boxed sandwiches and loading up with eight at a time. Mrs. Cooper is rapidly piling soft-drink cans in the cart.

By the time this flight lands in Chicago, they will have checked emergency equipment, prepared food service, seated 110 passengers, helped stow carry-on bags, given their seatbelt-and-oxygen-mask spiel, and served drinks and snacks. All in 58 minutes. It will be the third time they've done the routine on an eight-leg flying day.

The hectic eight-city, 11-hour workday is not unusual. It's just one aspect of the turbulent times airline flight attendants find themselves flying through -- and it speaks of the troubles faced by an industry with an outlook more unsettled than at almost any other time in its history.

With the new crop of lean and hungry deregulation-spawned air carriers providing cheap fares, the established carriers have had to cut costs to keep their place in the sun. Many of these carriers are packing in the passengers, and negotiating new hard-nosed contracts with longer hours, shorter layovers, and, in some cases, salary cuts around 20 percent, as well as stiffer work rules. Many carriers have opted to hire new ``b-scale'' workers at much lower salaries.

Several airlines have had long and bitter strikes.

The recently ended nine-week strike against TWA resulted in defeat for the union: The airline told the union only 600 positions were left for 6,000 striking workers, most of whom will be out of jobs. The new hires at TWA make $1,007.50 a month, 30 percent less than under the previous contract; other airlines are paying between $780 and $1,000 a month for b-scalers.

Hijackings, bombings, the higher number of crashes, the uncertainty of flying in a sky with more and larger planes monitored by fewer air traffic controllers, and airlines being fined for safety violations -- all of these affect an already unsettling profession.

These changes in the business of flying -- and their effect on the lives of people in these jobs -- are a constant topic of conversation in the crowded cabins that make up flight attendants' workaday world.

``A typical trip used to be 30 hours in Acapulco -- nonstop partying,'' says Philip Nelson, a flight attendant on American Airlines. ``Now flight attendants have eight-hour layovers; that's five hours' sleep.'' Nelson himself looks pretty bushed, resting between flights on the plane with his feet up in the wide, plush gray seats of American's first-class section, as cleaners vacuum around him.

``The trips have gotten much tougher, says Ms. Wozniak, a 20-year veteran. ``I'm not lazy, but after you've done three days in a row, sometimes you can't think straight.''

The job still has its advantages, however. Wozniak often picks up an additional flight during the week for extra money. And United's Deborah Sterba works two five-day trips to Peking a month, with a three-day layover in Japan. ``The best thing is the freedom and the life style,'' she points out. Flight attendants can be seen during layovers in the lobbies of plush hotels in some of the world's most attractive vacation spots. The benefits are good, too, and so is the pay -- up to $45,000 a year with overtime for working between 65 and 90 hours a month.

All of which has helped attract a much more stable, long-term employee base to the profession. About half the flight attendants are married; one-third have children. ``We're gone from being the centerfold of Playboy to the centerfold of Good Housekeeping,'' says Wozniak, sitting in the smoky back section of the noisy DC-9. ``We've grown up. You're not talking to a 19-year-old in a miniskirt anymore, you're talking to a woman with grown children who's interested in retirement benefits.''

But some airlines are attempting to trim back their highly paid senior ranks by offering them six months' salary to quit. ``All they want are the Burger King girls,'' one Eastern attendant charges. ``Little 19-year-olds they can burn out in a couple of years.''

Airlines officials cry foul: ``This is not a Machiavellian scheme management has dreamed up,'' counters Jerry Cosley, Eastern's senior vice-president of corporate communications. ``All we want is a solid core of service-oriented professionals and competitive costs.

``The flight attendants are being asked to work more for less,'' he adds. ``The old days of pilots and flight attendants having more days off a month than they work -- and being paid so handsomely for it that they could run businesses on the side -- are over.''

Even so, flight attendants and those who work with them argue that the demands of the job, and the need for top-flight people to fill it, have, if anything, increased.

``A lot of people have the impression that a flight attendant is a little piece of fluff,'' says pilot Bob Lewis, a 27-year veteran with USAir, sitting in a cockpit jammed with instruments. ``They are extra valuable, far more now than ever with all the security measures. If we didn't have someone responsible out there, it would be impossible for us to handle our jobs.''

Serving drinks and meals and running in-flight movies is the most visible aspect of a flight attendant's job. But a good part of the training has to do with safety: how to evacuate an airplane in 90 seconds, how to deal with medical emergencies, and above all how to stay cool. Uli Derikson, purser on TWA's hijacked Flight 847, was awarded the Silver Cross for Valor for saving passengers' lives; the flight attendants on bombed TWA Flight 840 were credited with keeping everyone calm while the plane made an emergency landing.

During one stop on USAir's flight, Wozniak does a replay of her regular check of the hatch in the tail cone. She throws back a lever on the heavy rear door, hauls it open, steps carefully down a narrow, dark passage, and checks the hatch. ``I always check it, get a mental picture of it each time; that it's at knee level. It makes me feel more secure.''

Back in the galley, Mrs. Halvorsen dashes in to grab an apple juice for the difficult customer they've joshingly dubbed ``Mr. Cool.'' The others contend that passengers like him are becoming more common. There are more first-time fliers who expect first-class service on $39 fares. And delays due to fewer air traffic controllers make passengers irate, they say.

``People are crowded and unhappy,'' says 44-year veteran Edith Lauterbach. ``They have to deal with seat duplications, trying to get their stuff stowed. It's a constant battle, trying to keep people happy.''

``There's no question that being a flight attendant has changed,'' acknowledges Joe Hopkins, corporate communications manager for United Airlines. ``With the heavy passenger loads there are a lot more people to serve. It puts pressure on the flight attendants.''

Flight attendants are also concerned about soaring airline safety violations. Eastern Airlines may be taken to court for refusing to pay the FAA-ordered $9.5 million fine (the airline's offer to pay $3.5 million was turned down) for more than 78,000 alleged violations of federal safety regulations. American Airlines last fall was the leader in fines, with $1.4 million; Continental was fined $400,000.

With 1985 being judged the year of the most airplane crashes, do flight attendants feel flying is less safe now?

``I wouldn't say that things are unsafe, but they're getting less safe,'' says Miss Lauterbach. She cites the shortage of FAA inspectors, and pilots' growing realization that the air traffic control system is not as safe as they'd like. But safety does not seem to be a major concern.

Terrorism is also a new element in this profession. ``The Qaddafi thing's got a lot of people shaky,'' says Wozniak. Philip Nelson notes that some international flight attendants are coming back to domestic flights.

That uncertainty may be one reason why these flight attendants and others mentioned finding themselves mentally ``gearing up'' for their flights a day ahead of time, and why it takes a whole day of ``gearing down'' when they're done.

Despite the problems, most of the flight attendants still say they love their jobs. The b-scalers, even with some reservations, are glad to be doing it. Piedmont's Leah Hill, strapping herself in the jumpseat for landing in Newark, says, ``When I quit nursing I thought, I'll fly to New York and shop all day. It's not like that. I still love it, though. It's a lifelong dream for me.''

For many of the veterans, however, the dream has gone ragged around the edges.

As the last of the passengers deplane in Chicago, Wozniak, Cooper, Halvorsen, and pilot Bob Lewis sit down at the front table section and fork into the boxed dinners that have been brought on board. It's a meal they will consume in all of 10 minutes.

Wozniak and Cooper lament that the crowded flights mean that they don't have the time they'd like to spend with passengers. ``Before, if someone was really scared you had the time to really sit and talk to them,'' says Wozniak. ``You can't do that anymore.''

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